The Never-Performed Eighth Movement of "The Planets"

Funny story written by Ralph E. Shaffer

Monday, 13 November 2017

There was a time when my classical music station in Los Angeles, KUSC-fm, played Gustave Holst's "The Planets" more frequently than it does now. That was wen moon walks and Mars landings occurred more often than they do today. The Holst opus is one of the great symphonic compositions of the twentieth century, but after 1930 it was very much in need of an eighth movement. Until 2006, that is.

From 1914 to 1917 Holst worked on his tone poem, depicting each of Earth's then-known seven fellow orbiters in our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. But no Pluto - only because it hadn't been discovered yet.

In 2006 a scientific committee announced that Holst got it wrong. They wanted to add three, and possibly fifty, more planets to the list. On the other hand, a bunch of fuddy duddies argued that Holst's original list remains the correct one.

This was not the first time that "The Planets" had been the subject of conjecture. Amid a great deal of controversy, the discovery of Pluto in 1930 (the same year the cartoon character appeared) added a ninth sibling to the list

Pluto's size and orbit raised some questions about the legitimacy of including the new kid on the block with the existing planets. But the Disneyesque name and the image of a lovable pooch won over the hearts, if not the minds, of the populace at large.

And at least one composer saw in Pluto a chance at greatness.

For years a fascinating but little known tale has circulated about an obscure music professor at an unidentified Midwestern state college who was allays one crescendo and several glissandos short of notating a performable composition. After the discovery of Pluto he happened upon Holst's then rarely performed opus and decided that he'd make his mark by adding an eighth movement to the score, "completing" Holst's "The Planets."

He spent a lifetime writing and re-writing "Pluto." Version after version filled his sheet music box. He toyed with a happy, frisky Pluto, with a forlorn and melancholy one. At times Pluto was regal; then hangdog.

Friends who heard the various versions were polite but not encouraging. His composition was never performed, and when a little boomlet developed a few years ago to downgrade Pluto to something less than a planet, his magnum opus seemed to be fodder for the shredder.

Then, in the summer of 2006, the International Astronomical Union [IAU] resurrected both the issue of Pluto as planet and that long languishing composition. The press first reported that a committee of the union had recommended not a removal of Pluto from the list of planets but his re-confirmation as an official planet and the addition of three others: Ceres, Charon and UB313.

The nation's dailies had hardly hit the front porch before other wouldbe composers rushed to the keyboard. Ceres would present no problem: a pastoral, agricultural piece crowned with nature's bountiful harvest. That's a snap. Charon - ah, the boatman ferrying dead souls across the river Styx. Has great possibilities.

But UB313? Better get to work on the first two before other musicians beat you to them and you're left with this turkey. Now, if the committee had used UB313's nickname - Xena - there might have been something there. It's easy to imagine a brassy, militant march based on television's Warrior Princess.

Beyond those three, there was a hint that another fifty orbiters might be candidates for planets in the future. Good grief, music students for generations will be busy tinkering with Holst's work.

Then came the news that the IAU rejected the committee's proposal. Instead, it moved not only to veto the addition of those three newcomers but to formally strip Pluto of his ranking with the original eight, downgrading him to the status of "dwarf" planet. "Stop the Music!"

So it now appears that Gustav Holst had it right all along. There won't be stirring wake-up music to accompany NASA's greeting to astronauts embarked on a lengthy flight to that distant asteroid, dwarf planet or whatever Pluto now is. And "Pluto" will never grace the airwaves coming from your classical music station as the eighth movement of that magnificent Holst epic.

The funny story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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